A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

One thing heard constantly in the debate over right-to-work laws is that workers in unionized workplaces do have a choice since they can avoid paying for union political funding by exercising their "Beck Rights."

This is (kinda) true, but it should be noted that unions have always fought —and continue to fight — against this right.

Beck rights are based on a 1988 Supreme Court case that holds that employees can opt out of paying the political portion of their dues. The case has been severely gutted over the years by judicial interpretations, but basically means that if a worker chooses, the union cannot use their agency fee money to directly fund political candidates.

But for all their talk about this option, labor unions have consistently fought to prevent it.

First off, Beck rights were established when the Communications Workers of America used union members' dues to directly support the presidential campaign of Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat from Minnesota, and the re-election of Maryland Democrat Sen. Joseph Tydings. Maintenance worker Harry Beck argued that he shouldn't have to pay for these activities, but the union refused and Beck had to sue to get them to stop. The Supreme Court agreed with Beck.

A more recent example: A worker in Ohio alleged last November that the United Food and Commercial Workers used money he was forced to pay to the union to unionize workers at other locations. This and other recent cases where unions are using non-member agency fees for political activities are documented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

In Michigan, unions have pushed to spend agency fees on all sorts of operations most people would consider political.

In the 1990s, the Michigan Education Association fought against Robert Bromley and 17 other public school employees who challenged the compulsory "service fee,” saying that the union was using their fees on "expenditures for political, ideological, and other activities not demonstrably germane to collective bargaining…"

And in Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, a group of employees said their agency fees were being used for purposes other than negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement. The MEA-affiliate argued that non-bargaining activities are "designed to influence the public employer's position at the bargaining table" and that they could use the fees for certain political activities.

Today, unions are able to use dues money for "internal communications," attempts to persuade members to vote a certain way, food for workers rallying outside the capitol, get-out-the-vote drives aimed only at the union's members, and the salary of the union president to write opinion editorials criticizing right-to-work laws. The money isn't being used for political action committee funding, but it sure is used for politics.

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